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During his hey-day, Otto Preminger was one of the few famous directors whose face was immediately recognizable to the average movie-goer, due mostly to his success at playing vicious Nazi commandants in World War II pictures. But few people realized that he was actually Jewish. Preminger was always a hard man to pin down. There was a perverse streak running through almost all of his film work, both in front of and behind the camera. Honestly- name another accomplished filmmaker who would have agreed to play Mr. Freeze in the original Batman TV series!
Angel Face, which Preminger directed in 1952, stands as one of his more memorable projects. The "Angel Face" of the title is Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), the apparently innocent daughter of a wealthy businessman named Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall.) Diane may seem like a sweetie on the surface, but she also happens to be a psychotic who will stop at nothing to maintain her own happiness, including killing her stepmother (Barbara O'Neil.) Diane also sets her sights on the family's hunky chauffeur, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), even though Frank already has a girlfriend (Mona Freeman.) Suffice it to say that things don't go well for Frank and Diane. You'll need a very broad definition of "happy ending" to smile at how this one wraps up.
The film's harshness isn't surprising, really. Preminger wasn't the only risk-taker who was connected with it. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO at the time, set the whole thing up, and for very strange reasons. Preminger was contracted to 20th Century Fox when Darryl Zanuck told him that he had been loaned out for one picture to Hughes. When Zanuck handed him the script, which was then inventively titled Murder Story, Preminger was aghast. He thought it was awful and refused to be involved. No matter how much Zanuck insisted (and he welded enormous power in Hollywood), Preminger held his ground. He wouldn't have anything to do with the movie.
But he didn't count on a dose of Howard Hughes-style persistence. The next morning, at 3 a.m., Hughes phoned Preminger and told him to get out of bed and be ready to leave the house 30 minutes later. Hughes promptly showed up in his noisy old Chevy, and the two men tooled around the empty streets of Los Angeles for several hours, discussing the project. Hughes explained that Simmons was only under contract to RKO for 18 more shooting days, and he desperately wanted to get another film out of her before she left. He and the actress recently had a violent argument, and she took a pair of scissors and cut her hair to the quick, knowing that her boss hated short hair on women. "I'm going to get even with that little bitch," Hughes told Preminger, "and you're going to help me." Hughes told Preminger he could have carte blanche on the film; he'd even let him have complete control of the script, so long as he didn't hire any "Commies" to do the re-writes! All Hughes asked was that Simmons would be forced to wear a long black wig throughout the picture. Preminger accepted on those terms.
In the end, Simmons basically won the battle. She gives one of the strongest, most unexpected performances of her career in Angel Face. And Preminger took some abuse of his own on the set, which may well have been karmic retribution for agreeing to push Simmons around as a favor to Hughes. One day, Preminger slapped Simmons in a fit of anger, and Mitchum stepped in to correct his mistake: he punched the director right in the nose. Later, in his popular autobiography, Preminger insisted that he very much enjoyed working with Simmons. He never mentioned the slap, or getting belted by Mitchum. Maybe he just forgot.
Produced and directed by: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Frank Nugent (based on a story by Chester Erskine)
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Art Direction: Carroll Clark and Albert S. D'Agostino
Costume Design: Michael Woulfe
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Frank), Jean Simmons (Diane), Mona Freeman (Mary), Herbert Marshall (Mr. Tremayne), Kenneth Tobey (Bill), Raymond Greenleaf (Arthur Vance), Griff Barnett (The Judge), Robert Gist (Miller), Morgan Farley (Juror), Jim Backus (District Attorney Judson.)
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara